Celebrating writing mentors
Recently, the head of the Cleveland Job Bank, Kelly Blazek, made the news – at first locally and then nationally and then internationally – for writing harsh responses to younger job seekers. The story has even apparently qualified as Hollywood gossip; been dubbed “BlazekGate”; risen to the level of a top trending topic on Twitter; and caused a new verb to arise: “blazeked,” referring to someone being blindsided by a response.
I found myself caught up in the drama, and then wondered what made this story so compelling to so many people. Ultimately, I decided that it was because Kelly had presented herself as wanting her listserv subscribers to feel like “my little sister or brother” saying that “I’m looking out for them.” And yet, she didn’t use that tone in certain emails.
In other words, she was presenting herself as a mentor and the outrage arose when she acted in a radically different way.
This post isn’t about Kelly, although she did inspire the topic and cause me to think about my own writing mentors. One of my earliest was a wise and yet very cranky newspaper editor. He certainly wasn’t warm and fuzzy, and his approachability varied mercurially with his moods. Yet, he still taught me much about interviewing people and quoting them effectively in copy.
One of the most unexpected of my writing mentors was the bestselling author and respected New York editor, Sol Stein. I’d interviewed him for the AOL Writer’s Club when the online site was still new and evolving. At the end of the interview, he told me that, if he could ever help me in any way, to just let him know. So, when I got my first book contract, I emailed to ask him a question, and he ended up reviewing the entire contract for me, free of charge.
So, I decided to ask other communication professionals about their mentoring relationships and experiences, and I got intriguing responses. Here’s more.
During the 1990s, Kathleen Shaputis studied with the prolific and well-respected writer, Eva Shaw. “Eva is a ball of energy,” Kathleen says, “bubbling with positivity.”
In 1999, Eva invited Kathleen to attend a writer’s conference where she was speaking, a flattering request. “For three days at the conference,” Kathleen remembers, “she kept up the mantra of ‘You need to write non-fiction.’ I poo-pooed the idea, as I did not write non-fiction.” The conference ended with Kathleen buying Eva’s book, Writing the Nonfiction Book. She had her autograph it, as a memento of their time together – and then Kathleen put the book on her shelf at home.
But, the story definitely didn’t end there.
“Several months later,” Kathleen recalls, “I woke up in a cold sweat thinking, ‘I’m a computer technician and a grandmother. I answer questions about both subjects all day long. People even follow me into the bathroom to ask me computer questions. So, I could write a book about computers for grandmothers.’”
She spent the next four and a half months writing a book proposal about the idea. “I sold it,” she says, at a writer’s conference “over a glass of wine to the publisher of Ten Speed Press during the schmooze fest after classes.” What appealed about the idea to that particular publisher? It ends up that she’d recently had twins; her mother lived in Australia; and she liked the thought of her mother knowing how to communicate with them via computer.
Kathleen went on to publish six books of her own (so far!), plus ghostwriting six others. Now she teaches at writer’s conferences and mentors other writers. “When I started a writer’s group at my local Barnes & Noble,” she says, “Rebecca Durkin was one of my first participants. She has finally finished her wonderful memoir Chemo on the Rocks and I’ve been mentoring her through the process of both writing and creating a book proposal, which is out to literary agents at this time.”
I asked Kathleen what made Eva such a great mentor and Kathleen says the following: “Writing can be difficult and you need someone with a positive attitude behind you, encouraging you. That person also needs to be strong enough to tell you to apply butt glue to a chair; to sit down on that chair; and to show up until you get something written. If someone can do both, then she is worth her weight in gold. You can’t be successful at writing if you can’t finish a project.”
Kathleen’s and Eva’s relationship took a surprising twist in 2013. To explain it, we need to backtrack briefly to 1993, when Kathleen was first taking classes with Eva. “In the very first class,” Kathleen remembers, “Eva had us create a bubble chart, using a genre of writing that we didn’t feel comfortable with. So, I picked murder mysteries. We had to create a character and lay out the foundation of the book, which I did.”
Her bubble chart listed Scotland as a place, with a character inheriting a haunted castle. Even though it was meant as an exercise, “the idea kept niggling at me,” Kathleen said, “and I kept taking notes.”
Fast forward to 2013: Kathleen and Eva are working together at a writer’s conference in Los Angeles and Eva asked her about that long-ago exercise. Kathleen admits that she was almost done writing the novel and, through a connection of Eva’s, the book got published as a paranormal romantic comedy titled Her Ghost Wears Kilts.
As a final thought, Kathleen says, “Life can get in the way of writing, but you need to get around it, however you can.” And, with the help of good mentors, that quest becomes a whole lot easier.
Here’s what others have to say about their mentoring relationships.
Copywriters have mentors, too, as Dustin Christensen points out. “My first job as a copywriter,” he says, “was under a writer who had some, but limited, SEO experience. I learned quite a bit from her, but I also felt like I didn’t have the mentorship I needed to really combine my two real interests: writing and online marketing. Eventually she left the company and I stayed on, and after several years became the content director at the company.”
This company was growing and so Dustin hired a few additional writers. “I ended up mentoring one writer in particular who showed a lot of interest and passion in SEO and content marketing. She was a great writer, but needed guidance in order to shape her lively and creative writing. I worked with her for over a year, trying to give her more structure than I’d had when I first started out, but at the same time allowing her to make mistakes herself.”
So, why did this mentoring relationship work out well, when Dustin’s relationship with his own mentor wasn’t as helpful? “I think the big difference between the two experiences was that my mentor was not really concerned with my own development, whereas I became committed to seeing the writer I mentored develop into an all-around marketing writer. She eventually left and is now the editorial manager of a very well-known marketing software company, so it’s very cool to see how she’s grown as a writer.”
“Ideally,” Joanne Rock points out, a good writing mentor teaches more than just writing. There is a strong human component that shows a writer how to cope with the emotional drain of writing and the unique challenges a writer faces.”
Joanne was blessed with a mentor who did just that: K. Sue Morgan. “A member of a regional romance writing chapter when I moved to a new city, Sue was quick to greet me and invite me to lunch, and she offered to read for me – all before the first formal writing meeting. As an overwhelmed young mother in a strange town at
the time, that meant the world to me. She gave me practical, useful advice
on my writing. But more than that, she made me feel welcome and made sure I
found other writer friends.”
Sue also knew when it was time for Joanne to move on. “I would have gladly enjoyed her critiquing wisdom for the rest of my career,” Joanne says, “but Sue graciously paired me with another new writer – someone she could see was very much on par with my skills. As much as I hated to lose my brilliant mentor, I trusted her so much that I gave the new critique partner a try. Seventeen years later, my critique partner is my lifelong best friend and most trusted writing associate.”
As for Sue? “My wonderful mentor passed away two years ago and is dearly missed, but I’m so glad I had the chance to know her. I’m not the only writer whose life she touched and changed for the better, but I work hard to fulfill the request she made of me anytime I tried to thank her – to give her gift back to other new writers whenever I could.”
Walter G. Meyer
Walt Meyer points out yet another helpful aspect of having a mentor: as he or she gets a new job, you – as the one being mentored – can gain another foothold in your career. “Martin J. Smith,” Walt says, “who has been my friend since elementary school, was my editor on the Daily Collegian at Penn State. As he became an editor at various places, the Pittsburgh Press, Orange County Register, Los Angeles Times, and Orange Coast Magazine, he’d hire me to write freelance pieces for him.”
The mentor welcomed Walt into a writer’s group and secured a deal so that he could co-write his second book. After that, Walt says, “I felt the need to pay it forward.” He learned of a high school student who wanted to be a novelist and therefore wanted to shadow a writer. Walt was happy to talk to the student, but, he says, “shadowing me would be rather boring. I sit at a computer most of the day and watching people type is hardly interesting stuff. The student and I arranged to meet. He interviewed me for about three hours then wrote an excellent paper about our talk and his plans to be a writer.”
Afterwards, the student wrote his novel and Walt received a link to it on Amazon. “Just last week,” Walt says, “I read a draft of a friend’s novel and offered him advice not only on the content, but on the publishing options: looking for an agent and publisher the traditional way versus self-publishing, which is becoming so popular.”
“I’ve been a writing mentor to all levels and ages for the last 25 years,” says Leigh Shulman. “It began when I was a writing fellow at Barnard College, working in conjunction with college classes. It was my job to read, comment and give feedback on student papers. Many of the younger, newer writers resented being forced to share their work and receive feedback from me. They felt they knew the subject better and didn’t believe I had much to add. The more experienced writers, though, were the best connections.”
One seasoned journalist whom Leigh worked with caused her some stress, as she worried that this journalist would “completely dismiss little me, but she was fantastic, such a pleasure. She listened, asked questions and took what I said seriously even though she had 20 years of writing experience on me.”
From her, Leigh learned that:
- every writer needs a reader
- even an inexperienced writer has something to offer in terms of feedback and
This mentor bolstered Leigh’s confidence and she now works to pass that gift along to others. “Even the greenest writer can confidently trust his or her ability to read. They know when something doesn’t make sense or when something is missing from the story. It is that reader’s eye that I encourage people to bring to their own writing. Yes, it’s more difficult to be objective and really see one’s own writing but, with time and practice, it becomes easier.”
Not sure you need a mentor? Take a look at this article. If you know that you need a mentor and don’t have one, Writers Relief offers advice. If you’re a mentor yourself and are finding it to be challenging, Publishers Weekly writes about mentoring during times of change.
What can you tell us about your own writing mentors? How have they helped you? How are you paying him or her back by paying it forward?